Four years in Academics

I completed four years in academics few days back. When I look back, especially at these last four years, I could see that I have added value for myself, to the student community, to the institute and to the nation as a whole. That’s the beauty of being in academics – you can add value locally and globally! But still, I would say that there were bouncy and flat periods in it, which is in addition to the coming-nicely-on-to-the-bat periods (World Cup effect!). One needs all kind of scenarios to equip him(her)self right! So, no complaints here.

This is how I had summarised at the end of my first year in academics:

In the first year my first job was to get acclimatise as a good teacher which I have done to an extend, now my priority is to do good research with students and publish well! Smiles in your student faces bring miles of satisfaction and that is second to none!

See this blog entry done three years ago:

With more administrative work that came on my way (as DoFA) in my second year it took a lot out of me, since (1) administration is a different ball game, (2) I had no experience in administration (3) it is not my piece of cake and (4) academics administration is not a difficult job but it takes lot of your time. During this catch-the-neck like scenario, I was able to somehow withstand the teaching part – I could try lots of innovative ideas to improve my teaching and at the same time, my students learning experience also. I succeeded in some and failed in some but ultimately learnt a lot more from the mistakes. Hence on the teaching part, I would say that on the whole I have succeeded by God’s grace. But the part that took a little beating was my research part. There were few reasons for this but the prime reason was I could not devote considerable time for it. Change in my area of research also added to that misery. But one lucky thing I got during this second year period was, getting two PhD students to work with me. I could continue the research part through these two students who, in turn, worked with my UG and PG students. This helped me to create a nice group / ecosystem as like in IITs and other world class institutions – PhD students working on the conceptual part and the UG students looking after the implementation and experimentation part. But I should note here that there were highly passionate UG students who got involved in research and came out with good results!

My administrative responsibilities as DoFA came to a close few months back and since then I have been able to focus more on the research part – now I am able to devote more time with less intervention from the other side of the academic quarters. With one PhD student seeing the horizon and another one feeling the horizon I sense that the progress is really good. There is no doubt that this is only going to improve further and further.

There were many small but important lessons that I learnt during this last three years period. I would like to list it here and explain how I tried my best to address those issues:

  • The most important thing that I have learned here in academics is to say “No” to things which I think are not possible for me to take it. I am, in general, a very flexible person in nature. So I had a habit of accepting more and more work that came on my way and I was elastically stretching myself beyond my threshold. This led to various stress related issues and I learnt the lessons in a very hard way. Now I take my time before accepting anything that come my way, and if I feel that it is worthwhile to be taken, and I deserve to do it, then I will accept, if not I will say No. Main point we need to understand here is that when you say No, we need to give proper justification, which may not be needed when you say Yes! If you have an objective and focus in your career you have to be selfish too. There is no other go! This has actually helped me to even out things and concentrate only on things that genuinely require my attention.
  • Other main issue I faced in academics was the issue of frequent context-switching. Let me explain what I meant by it here. In corporate atmosphere, you have a project at hand and you will immerse deeply into it. When you are working in that project, you may not get any other assignment until you finish that one. But in the case of a job in academics, especially from Associate Professor category onwards whether you like it or not, you are going to get both academics related admin work, in addition to teaching and research work. Hence there are three categories of work you may get: academic administration, teaching and research. Most of these last three years, many a times I have to hip-hop between various responsibilities. When you do that you may have to do the context-switching from admin to research, from research to teaching and so on very often. Even within one field, that is, research, you may have to hip-hop. You may work in various different problems with different types of students. So quick context-switching is necessary – and that’s where my problem was. I have got used to this lately by planning my schedule of work beforehand. If I had not planned for a work and that work is not of higher priority, I usually defer it for another day. That gives me sometime to plan for it. At this time, I still remember my Postdoc advisor Prof. Helmut Jurgensen‘s advice to me – one work at a time!
  • On the research side, I was facing a different problem. After I came back to academic from corporate life, my main focus area in research has changed from Theoretical Computer Science to Web Science. In Theoretical Computer Science, during my tenure as a research student, validation of result is done through Theorems and Proofs. But in the area of Web Science, Theorems and Proofs are not possible in most of the cases. So, only way to validate the results is by doing empirical analysis. The switch from mathematical proofs to empirical analysis took a lot of time for me to understand. I am still getting used to it. This comes only through experience.
  • Every research topic is different and within each research topic, every research problem is different. So, for a new entrant in a research topic, it is difficult to judge the standard of the problem and the results that (s)he is working on. Hence, when I met my research students I said that we are going to aim at top-tier conferences first for our publications. Main reason being by comparing our papers with papers at top-tier conferences, we shall come to know our level and through critical comments from the reviewers, we shall be able to improve on our negative points. By sending to tier-two conferences we may get more publications, but there will not be much opportunities to improve our knowledge in that specific or related topic. By using this approach, we have had almost 75% rejection rate on our submissions, but it has immensely helped me and my students to go much deeper into our problems which we would not have even imagined. Now we are at a threshold of acceptance in a top-tier conference. Hope it goes through in the next few months.

Just a few weeks ago, I was telling one of my very passionate student that life is not only about change. Change in life is not the correct word here. It gives only importance to what you are presently or what you will be in future – change is like ON/OFF switch – either you change to ON or OFF. But life is more about how one evolves – evolve, also includes change, but it also includes “how you changed and what made you to change” in addition to the lessons that you have learned. So, in a nutshell I am evolving in my academics life and thereby finding myself in my academics life. Hope I learn more and more – since, academics is to learn together!

EDIT: Corrected some typo errors…

Two years in Academic Administration

I am completing two years as DoFA at my Institute today! These two years have been a great learning experience for me. Within 1 year and 3 months of coming to an academic job, it was a big surprise for me when the management asked me to take over the DoFA office. It was a big task for me but since I like to get challenges I accepted it but after a little hesitation. In this post I want to scribble out my thoughts about my learning experiences in these 2 years. I am not coining some of the points below as complaints or as a warning but as hard facts that I learnt the hard way. I am writing this in the hope that it will be helpful to young faculty members who want to venture into academic administrative responsibilities in their future.

First of all within my few months of assuming office I understood that DoFA is a unique responsibility in the sense that the office has to have communication with both internal members of the institute and members who are outside the institute. The responsibilities include taking care of internal faculty member’s issues, search, find and communicate with candidates who are aspiring to become faculty members and also with well-established researchers and teachers from top institutes of India and abroad for inviting them to the institute for various engagements. Compare this with other Dean offices – their span is either only internal or external or both but only to a very limited extent! This means as a DoFA you should have a good network inside and outside the organisation.

Faculty recruitment process is one of the most important responsibilities of DoFA. Here comes DoFA office’s efforts to arrive at a consensus among the departments about which one to go first, whom to be called for the interviews, whom to be called as experts, on which date to conduct the interviews (most people prefer to have it during / closer to the weekend!). This work becomes heavier if your office is not supported by enough people or it is not supported by people who are not experienced enough in this field – since communication with faculty or prospective faculty members require a level of maturity for “obvious” reasons! In my experience on one occasion, I had to stop the office from communicating few things to someone as I found a huge error at the very last moment when it was about to be sent with a click of a button. Luckily, at the last moment I found it and stopped or else my head would have been smashed! These days we use communication through electronic means. It has its own benefits – communicating with people is faster but at the same time in the e-mode making mistake or overlooking something is also easier! Since DoFA is overall accountable for any issues that might arise these communication has to be handled in a very careful manner. Remember here we may be communicating with external people who are not with the institute. So if we do a mistake this is going to propagate to the outside world and it will set a very bad name for the institute. Hence if the office is not mature enough to handle these, it’s better that DoFA does it just to avoid confusions later. Then more complications may arise – you may not have anyone to remind you of the pending communication or much needed followups. Many times I have put reminders to reminders to remind me on a specific communication that I need to do. Sometimes these communication might be critical if this is not done there will be a cascading effect. Sometime when you as a DoFA communicate with the candidates you may expect some lame questions from them. It all depends on you if you should entertain such questions or not.

DoFA is one of the thankless job – if there are any issues people will come to talk to you for several minutes together or write an essay kind of an email. If the issues are sorted then there is no one going to come to you to say that the issue is now sorted out, leave alone saying thank you! In fact that’s the nature of the job too! No complaints about it, but that’s what the fact is and one has to be prepared to face it. Few times I have got petty issues like – Sir, those labourers working nearby are making noise I am not able to work – as a DoFA can you please tell them not to do make noise? Well as DoFA you may have to hear all those things!

If you want to be friendly with all faculty members do not become a DoFA! In fact, after you become DoFA some of the faculty members may treat you as an enemy too! Main reason is some of them may take things personally and think that DoFA is against him/her – it’s natural since their point of view is “self” and DoFA’s point of view is “institute” – perspectives differ here. In fact, people who were previously very friendly with me have turned into people who only talk about the faculty issues whenever they meet me informally. So you may get more of negative news from all quarters and with all these negativism around, you have to swim through and survive – patience is the key. My character and my intention in life is to be positive, hear positivity, be constructive and move forward but the nature of the job was totally opposite to that and I had to do some conscious and deliberate changes within myself to get accustom to the new situation. It was extremely hard to do these changes and I am still learning!

People in academic administrative responsibilities always face this issue when looking for furthering their career (for example, promotion) – should the institute consider the admin work done by a faculty more or the research and teaching work they did more. It’s always a tradeoff between these two since admin work takes a lot of your time and energy. But it is a good challenge if you like the nature of this job. There are many faculty members I have seen who do these admin jobs very passionately. But considering an academic institution we must note down that teaching is an essential part of it so you should never neglect it. This tradeoff between admin and research / teaching is a big debate and there is no answer to it to see which one to weigh more. There is no single generalised answer to this. Lot’s of grey out there and it is very subjective in nature. But main point is we should understand this issue beforehand so that we may prepare accordingly when you are thinking of furthering your career. If the management is good and reasonable then I am sure they will consider these cases in a case-by-case basis. In my case, I never shoved away from teaching responsibilities that I got from the department. In fact after becoming DoFA I started teaching core courses for very big classes and started building my research team called Web Science team at my institute. For me, that’s the tonic for me that keeps me going and growing. In fact, that’s why I came to academics leaving out lucrative offers that I got in the industry.  To be frank, I would say I am working more harder than when I was in industry! Now I work because I want to work rather than being asked to work! Moreover, I was basically an unorganised person and I work in an intuitive manner but the nature of this office responsibilities forced me to become organised and be more rational. Now to become more organised I have started using Google calendars for myself to track down various meetings and discussion and Trello to note and track down the status of various research teams working under me. Technology is helping me to a greater extend.

DoFA is an institute-wide position so the decision that the office arrive at should take in view of the future and betterment of the institute. Generally my character is to make everyone related to me and around me happy. But the nature of this job is completely opposite to this fact! So sometimes when we make a collective decision for the betterment of the institute there will be some heartburns for some of the faculty members who otherwise might be very close to you personally. Hence the hardest lesson that I learnt after becoming DoFA – if you want everyone to be happy don’t be a DoFA sell ice cream! Basically if your intentions are good for the institute you simply should go ahead with a broad consensus.